Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Summer of 70's (Bonus Round)

While we’re doing the Summer of 70’s films, I wanted to be sure to mention some films that I would definitely add to the list but which have already been reviewed at the site. Here is a list of those film you should add to your film library:

Soylent Green (1974). This is a great dystopian film based on a very faulty premise. The premise is that the human race would keep breeding and breeding until there are so many of us that the world simply collapses in a dead, polluted mess. Now those who are left are starving, and their leaders have turned to the unthinkable to feed everyone. The story itself is about NYC Detective Thorn who is investigating the death of a food company executive and comes to discover the truth. This film does an excellent job of presenting its mystery and an even better job of making you feel like you are living in this forsaken hell hole.

Vanishing Point (1971). This barely known film is essentially one long car chase. You had a lot of these in the 1970s. What makes this movie work so well is the divine overtones as the hero seems to be guided by a blind radio DJ who can see more than a human could and a fascinating ambiguous ending... plus a great soundtrack.

Alien (1979). This is simply the best horror-science fiction film ever made.

Deliverance (1972). This seemingly simple tale of four city-folk from Atlanta who go rafting on a dying river in hillbilly country effectively defined the urban, rural split that still influences much of our culture and our politics today as the panicked snooty elitists start killing what they think are butt-raping hillbillies... but might not be.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). This musical could be the first true “cult film” and it’s something everyone should see at least once to understand the same subculture that gave birth to modern cos-play.

Rollerball (1975). Perhaps the most conservative film of the 1970s, this film brings a strong warning against collectivism to the big screen by telling us that the collectivists cannot afford to allow a single talented athlete to give people the idea that they can succeed through individual effort.

Smokey and the Bandit (1976). Although seemingly just another car chase film, this film announced to the country that the American South had moved beyond Jim Crow and joined the modern world. I think it is no understatement to say that this film heralded the South’s rise as an economic and political power that rivaled any other part of the nation and saw the sunset of the once-dominant Northeast.

Silver Streak (1976). This film wasn’t really consequential, but it is perhaps one of the top comedies of the 1970s and I would say that it was a high-water mark for Gene Wilder. It was also Wilder’s first collaboration with Richard Pryor.

Make sure to check these out, and enjoy the films! Anything you would add to what we've already reviewed? And why?
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Monday, June 29, 2015

Summer of Marvel: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

"HULK SMASH!

By Kit

We're back!

Following up their big-hit Iron Man later that summer Marvel released their attempted reboot of the Hulk. The Hulk had previously been made into a film in 2004 to much disappointment, widely seen as too pretentious and too dreary by many. So in 2008 they decided to add more action and less drama, but still retain some.

Does it work? Let's see.

The Plot

The movie begins with an opening credits montage giving us a little back story on what has happened; Bruce Banner was doing tests for a military project led by General Ross alongside Ross’ daughter, Betty, who he has a thing for. Something goes wrong, he turns into a giant monster, severely injures Betty Ross and is forced to go on the run from General Ross.

The movie then picks up with him in Brazil, working at a factory that bottles a type of green soda (the color green pops up a lot in this movie) and he is well-liked by floor manager who often has him fixing broken-down devices. When he is not working he often works on ways to manage his anger and communicates online with a mysterious Mr. Blue, who might know of a cure.

Unfortunately, a bit of his blood falls into a bottle where it is shipped to America and consumed by Stan Lee, who contracts gamma radiation poisoning/sickness from it, which, after tracking it to the factory it was made, alerts General Ross to Banner’s likely whereabouts. He promptly sends a squad of soldiers led by Russian-born Brit special ops guy Emil Blonsky —neglecting to inform them of Bruce’s unique “condition”.

They go in and try to grab Bruce while a group of local thugs are messing with him. Eventually, both push Bruce far enough that he snaps and you know how that song and dance goes. What follows is a mostly-in-the-dark fight scene (smart decision, I should add) where the Hulk takes out both the local thugs and Blonsky’s soldiers one-by-one. The hulk flees and Bruce soon finds himself waking up in Guatemala (the Hulks runs far) where he decides to head back home to Culver University.

Arriving there he meets up with an old friend who tells him his old girlfriend Betty is dating some guy played by Phil Dunphy from Modern Family. Bruce decides to get into the computer lab and hack in using Betty’s password to get the information on the research back when the experiments went wrong. He does and returns to his old friend’s place —where Betty is there with her boyfriend.They see each other.

Meanwhile Blonsky is filled in by Ross on what Banner was doing, apparently, unbeknownst to him, he was working on trying to re-build the old Super-soldier serum from the 1940s. Things were not going well but he was sure he was onto something so he went ahead with a test and things went wrong or something like that. Blonsky decides he wants a bit of that and Ross agrees.

Meanwhile, Bruce and Betty are catching up at the Quad when the military arrives, having been informed by Betty’s ex-boyfriend. Bruce gets put in a corner and Hulks out and tosses a few humvees like a two-year old tosses little toy cars. That is, until Blonsky arrives who manages to put up a decent fight dodging his blows due to the super-soldier serum until the Hulk eventually knocks him out of the fight, breaking all of his bones. The Hulk then flees with Betty.

After returning to his human form Betty and Bruce decide to travel to New York City to meet up with Mr. Blue, or Samuel Sterns, a.k.a., “The Leader” in the comics (but not yet), in order to see if they can develop a cure. Meanwhile, Emil Blonsky quickly heals and is ready for another go, though now slightly unhinged.

What ensues is a race to get the cure, which has limited success, and Blonsky becoming the Abomination, a Hulk-like monster but with protruding bones , and a fight between the Abomination and the Hulk in Harlem.



Is it Good?

It's a mixed bag.

This movie was a bit better than I remembered it being, though still nowhere near as fun as the rest of the Marvel movie canon. The movie is a mixed bag. It has a strong performance from Ed Norton, the humor, like in all Marvel movies, is very good, and the movie has very fun fight scenes. But outside of that it struggles. The CGI of the Hulk still needs work and the villains are clichéd Hollywood military stereotypes you’ve seen a thousand times before.

First, the lead.

Ed Norton is very good. He gives us a Bruce that is likable but modest and unassuming. After watching this I have to say that he’s a better Bruce than Mark Ruffalo, not that Ruffalo is bad (he’s very good, actually) just that Norton is better.

Unfortunately, when he turns into the Hulk we see the movies first big problem. For reasons of either insufficient tech or insufficient money, the CGI for the Hulk, though a big improvement over 2004, is still not quite up to the level it would be in Avengers, let alone Avengers 2. He still looks a bit too much like a giant Shrek and at times I felt he looked a bit like a green, juiced-up young P.J. O’Rourke for some weird reason. Though, again, it is still an improvement over 2004.

Fortunately, if you can get past the CGI issues, the fight scenes are a lot of fun. The movie builds up anticipation for the Hulk each time, bringing us to the point that we are almost begging for the Hulk to appear, and unleashing him on the whoever has been asking for whooping. And the fight scenes, like with much of the pre-Avengers Marvel movies, are not the over-the-top destruction fests that now seem to dominate the genre. Today, the entire campus would probably be leveled, but here, we just have a simple fight scene on a quad between the Hulk and the military.

On the topic of the military, it is there we come to the movie’s most annoying weakness. This one has a slew of liberal, anti-military, Hollywood clichés.

Here are three questions that popped into my mind while watching the movie:
—Why the hell doesn’t General Ross tell the squad he sends after Banner at the beginning of the movie that the guy they are hunting can change into an enormous green rage monster at the turn of a second? That seems like something you want to bring up in the pre-op briefing. But I’m just a civilian so what do I know.
—Where the hell is the Congressional oversight on this? Two years later in the movie Iron Man 2 Congress would be trying to rip Stark over not letting the government have his suits but General Ross is able to do whatever he wants. Oh, and FYI, in-universe, Iron Man 2 occurs in the same week as this movie.
—On the subject of General Ross doing whatever he wants. Apparently full battalion, with machine guns-armed humvees, is able to just roll onto a college campus? Posse Comitatus Act, anyone? I’m pretty sure that requires at least an act of Congress to approve.

Yeah, this is not the worst handling of the military in a movie but coming on the heels of the fairly pro-military Iron Man and in a film series that has generally been pro-military, it was and still is quite jarring. The only real redeeming factor here is that William Hurt actually gives a pretty decent performance as General Ross, making him into a sort of Captain Ahab who has this mad obsession with the Hulk. You kind of feel sorry for the guy. Kind of.

As for the rest, the humor that is now trademark to the Marvel movies is funny. The side-performances are mostly ok, Liv Tyler is good in some scenes but there were a few I felt she was lacking. There are also some pleasant touches to the 1970s series, the best being the use of the iconic “Lonely Man Theme” as Bruce is traveling to the United States.

So, in all, the movie is ok. Not near the top but if you can get past the still-troubled CGI and the clichéd military then you will probably have a fun time watching it.

Summer of Marvel will return with a review of Iron Man 2, this time written by Andrew Price.


Bruce: "I can't get too excited."
Betty: "Not even just a little excited?"
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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Film Friday: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is an amazing and fascinating film. Normally, I don’t review films that have been written about this much, but this time I think it’s worth it. Close Encounters is the film I think of when people talk about the 1970’s film renaissance, when I think of Spielberg’s real talent, and when I think of films done right. This is a film you should see and appreciate.

Plot

Close Encounters involves the convergence of two separate but related stories. The first story unfolds in small vignettes that take their time to explain what is going on. In the first vignettes, a group of men race through the desert to find a collection of World War II era fighter craft, Grumman Avengers, in pristine condition. We don’t know this yet but these are the planes belonging to the doomed Flight 19 which vanished without a trace off of Florida. In the second, the same men find a ship, the SS Cotopaxi (which sank on her way to Cuba), in the sand dunes of the Gobi desert. In the third, an air traffic controller hears two planes report seeing UFOs flying near them. In the forth, the men are in India, where they seek villagers who claim to have seen something in the sky. These villagers provide the men with a series of musical tones which the men conclude are a form of communication.
Each of these vignettes builds the puzzle and brings us to the conclusion that aliens are seeking to communicate with the human race and they have chosen Devil’s Tower, Wyoming as their place of contact.

The second story, which is interspersed between these vignettes, involves Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, an electrical lineman from Indiana. Roy is out looking to fix a downed wire when he has a close encounter which sunburns half his face. This piques his interest and he starts to investigate UFOs. In the process, he meets a single mother named Jillian, who also has had a close encounter. Her son will be kidnapped by the aliens while she is in the house.
As Roy investigates, he becomes increasingly erratic in his behavior. This causes his wife to take their three children and leave him. The specific event that causes her to leave is when Roy starts dumping garbage in their living room so he can build a life-size model of Devil’s Tower. He feels compelled to do this even though he doesn’t even know that it’s Devil’s Tower until he sees a report on the news that the military is evacuating the Devil’s Tower area because of a supposed nerve gas spill. Roy is drawn to the area and, believing the military story to be false, he makes his way there.
At the foot of Devil’s Tower, the two stories converge as Roy is picked up trying to sneak into the area. There the men from the vignettes question him and try to send him away. But Roy escapes and reunites with Jillian, who also has been drawn here. They make their way up the mountain until they find the secret landing base the government constructed. Soon enough, the aliens arrive.

What Makes This Film So Awesome

Close Encounters is an awesome movie. It’s beautiful shot. It’s incredible well written. You really care about these characters. The plot is engaging. The mystery of what is going on is fascinating the first time through and still engaging even when you know how it will turn out. The movie has iconic music and sounds. It has amazing special effects too, blowing away those of today.
The movie is historically interesting too. For one thing, this film allowed science fiction to grow up. Before this, science fiction was about spaceships and laser guns and battling aliens. This was the first film that foreswore that and said that science fiction could be a character drama about how we finally make contact with an alien race. Indeed, the film’s view of realistic aliens as peaceful is essentially groundbreaking.

It’s also historically interesting because of the way it influenced UFO believers. Before this film, UFO abductees all over the world reported seeing very different aliens. But after this film, they all saw the small gray eunuchs with large heads and large eyes. So in a way, this film unified the UFO story, which has made the industry stronger... even though it should be discrediting.

Anyway, what makes this film so fantastic is the way Spielberg handled it. This was probably the film that cemented Spielberg’s empire, coming on the heels of Jaws and being a world wide mega-hit, and the reason why is that Spielberg was at the top of his game. This was Spielberg before he succumbed to commercialism and before he started using shortcuts to generate emotion. This was Spielberg when he took his time and told the story as it should be told.
What Spielberg did so well can be seen in the characters. First, and most importantly, he takes his time. Spielberg never rushes. This is so rare in modern cinema, where every second that can be removed from a film is for various reasons. Secondly, there are no villains. Some want to see the military as villains, but they aren’t. The military chases everyone out of Wyoming and tries to keep Roy and Jillian from getting up the mountain because they want to avoid a chaotic first contact. Notice that they never use violence to stop these people, and there are no armed soldiers or weapons at the landing site. Doing a film without a villain is a rare achievement in modern cinema because it is harder to write conflict without a villain.

The real key, however, is in the wide array of characters who get solid screen time. Roy is the everyman skilled laborer. His wife (Terri Garr) is the frustrated wife. Jillian is the overwhelmed single mom. David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is a cartographer who is enlisted in the search for clues because he can translate French into English. Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) is a French scientist and specialist in UFOs who leads the search for clues. Other prominent characters include an Air Force officer assigned to Project Blue Book, the Army commander in charge of clearing out Wyoming, air traffic controllers and the pilots to whom they speak, police, co-workers of Roy, Roy’s kids, a UFO crank, the men in charge of communicating with the aliens, and so on. Each of these characters feels real to us because we learn tons about them. In fact, we know more about them than we know about the lead characters in most modern films, and that makes the film feel real.
What's more, Spielberg gives us this wealth of information in only a few clever moments or lines of dialog. Consider Roy’s wife Ronnie. She seems like a loving wife on the surface, but we quickly see that she’s rather lazy, from her wardrobe, and she’s more concerned with appearances than with Roy’s problems as she tries to hide his sunburn and get him to stop talking about it. And, most tellingly, she blows up at Roy at the very moment where he asks her for emotional help. This tells us so much about her and it explains why Roy acts so erratically. As an aside, she would not exist in a modern remake except as an off-screen ex-wife.

Now take Laughlin, who is a sort of narrator for the vignettes. He never tells us anything about his life, except that he was a cartographer who also speaks French. But we soon learn that he’s rather meek, that he’s amazed by what he’s seeing and wants to believe, that he’s a kind man, that he never once worries that the aliens might be a danger, and that he’s rather bright. We learn this in an intensely clever scene where he solves the key mystery. In this scene, Laughlin realizes that the signals sent by the aliens represent coordinates on a map. In most movies, he would blurt this out and the scene would end. But Spielberg doesn’t do this.
Instead, we see Laughlin figure it out. He takes a moment to be sure of what he thinks he’s found. Then, rather than slamming this in the faces of the supposed geniuses who are debating all around him, he politely turns and says, “excuse me.” Then he humbly explains his conclusion. And then, having solved the key mystery, he goes right back to being a simple interpreter. This tells us so much about his character. And again, this is exactly the kind of character films no longer use because they want the main character to handle everything and they don’t care about letting you get to know the minor characters.

In fact, while we are talking about that scene, I think the brilliance of that entire scene deserves mention, as Spielberg converts a scene involving men talking into an action scene. He does this by having all the characters talking over each other and moving their arms around, which gives the impression of motion. Then, rather than grabbing a map, they find an enormous globe, which they free from its holder rather than carry back to their room and they let it roll toward the camera as they chase it. Again, this gives a sense of motion and urgency, and strangely it makes the audience tense as they wait to see if the men can catch the globe, just as it's tense waiting to see if Laughlin can interrupt them to be heard - in a similar moment, Roy is distracted by his wife as the television shows Devil's Tower in the background and it feels very tense as you wait to see if he will turn around in time to see it. Finally, rather than just finding the spot on the map, we watch two fingers trace the longitude and latitude lines until they connect, giving the audience a feeling of a race and a treasure being found, and then suddenly the room explodes in voices again.

The end result is that a scene which essentially only involves some men pondering the meaning of some numbers and looking it up on the map, turns into an action scene with a dramatic punch. Spielberg does this throughout the movie. This is what Spielberg used to do so well and which so few others ever managed to copy - make boring moments into heart-pounding scenes filled with real characters. Sadly, no one does this today. This is why this film is so amazing.

Thoughts?

As an aside, notice that the rolling globe and the tracing of lines will appear again in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Film Friday: Three Days of the Condor (1975)

I’m not a fan of Robert Redford. I don’t think he’s a great actor. His timing feels like he’s acting. His characters are too perfect. And he’s too pretty for most of the roles he plays. That said, I really like him in Three Days of the Condor. Condor strikes me as one of the few genuinely interesting and engaging spy films out there. Too bad it’s utterly without substance, but it’s still a good film and you should see it.

The Plot

Robert Redford works for the CIA in a satellite office in New York. His code name is Condor. He’s a reader whose job is to read books, newspapers and magazines from all over the world and look for hidden meaning within them. In performing his duties, he comes across a pulp thriller with strange plot elements which has been translated into an unusually large number of languages, with a particular emphasis on oil producing countries. He files a report with CIA headquarters.
As Redford waits for an answer to his report, he is sent out for lunch. When he returns to the office, he discovers that everyone has been killed. He quickly calls the CIA’s New York headquarters for instructions and is told that he will be picked up to be debriefed. The meeting, however, is a trap and his supposed rescuers try to kill him.

What follows is a cat and mouse game between Redford and a contract killer named Joubert (Max von Sydow) as Redford tries to solve the riddle of who at the CIA has been trying to have him killed. In the process, he kidnaps and befriends Faye Dunaway, who needs a boyfriend.
What Makes This Film Stand Out

Condor is a fascinating film that you all should see. Let me start with the criticisms, however. First, little about the film makes any sense once you stop to think about it. In fact, take the underlying premise, that Redford has spotted some secret plan in published books. This is nonsense. Why in the world would the CIA or anyone else put their plans into published books for the world to stumble upon?

Moreover, why would they communicate with whomever they are supposedly communicating with in this manner? Consider that it takes months to get a book published. And it probably takes even longer to get it translated and published in other countries. Wouldn’t it be easier to call these people or send radio communications or even make cryptic announcements on the news?
Why the CIA decides to kill Redford’s entire department makes no sense either. In movie terms, I guess it does, but in real life what Redford has stumbled upon sounds like it would be more easily covered up with a “Good work! We’ll take it from here!”

The film also suffers from too-convenient-itis, as all the characters act in ways they need to for Redford to survive. It also tries to skate by with a near total lack of substance. What is the CIA's plan? SomethingsomethingOIL! Who is Joubert? He’s a hired killer from somethingsomething. Why does the CIA use him? Somethingsomething. Even the ending is kind of ambiguous as to what really happens. In effect, the whole film is ephemeral. There is an evil plot, worthy of someone at the CIA killing CIA employees for finding out about it. They hire a mystery guy who gets instructions to kill Redford, except when it would end the film. In the end, some or all (maybe?) of the bad guys get killed and the plot is foiled... or not.

That said...

I really do like this film, and the reason is that this film provides the atmosphere of a genuine spy story, and there simply aren’t very many of those out there. Indeed, this film has all the elements we love about spies. You have the secret shop hidden right in the middle of the city as something else. You have the cool assignment of searching for hidden meanings in books. You have the clean up team of contract killers who wipe out an entire division without anyone knowing. You have the “who can you trust” paranoia that adds genuine tension to these films. You have the cool foreign assassin who would rather talk about the craft than shoot the hero dead, and he delivers a truly memorable speech about how the CIA will one day kill Redford. And the hero must use extraordinary skills to solve the problem they face.
All of this is excellent and you just can’t find it anywhere else. Indeed, despite the Cold War, there was almost nothing done by Hollywood that addressed spies in any realistic and interesting way. Instead, you had James Bond being a Playboy or John le Carré’s depressing and slow stories that feel like you are watching accountants try to find a mistake in a tax return.
What’s more, the characters in this story are likable and intriguing. Max von Sydow plays the mythical contract killer who follows an honorable code which almost makes him a good guy. This is not a man who will kill the unsuspecting and unprepared and we like him for that and we find him mysterious in a way which makes us want to know him better... despite the fact that he’s a cold-blooded killer. Faye Dunaway plays the kind of woman most men want to meet. She’s cold and hard at first and quite strong, but the more Redford gets to know her, the more you see the broken heart and the woman ready to give her all for the right man. She is not a cardboard character like most women on film today.
Redford is the key though. Redford simply can’t play a gangster or a miner or a construction worker because he’s too pretty and you can’t picture him ever getting dirty, but he fits perfectly as a bright young academic who finds himself terrified as he ends up stuck in the middle of a mess because of his naiveté. He’s also believable as the man who could seduce Faye Dunaway without even trying to seduce her, and he comes across as smart enough to believe he could learn what he needs to know on the fly. Further, he is rather likable in this film because for once he doesn’t play a know-it-all, he plays the guy who knows nothing and better learn fast.
Each of these characters is likable and interesting and they do an excellent job giving you a reason to care about the cat and mouse game that is taking place, and that is what drives this film.

So would this film still be worthy of recommending if there had been competing spy movies? Absolutely. This film has a strong atmosphere that pulls you into the world of spies very effectively. It has likable characters and a memorable plot. It is worthy of seeing. The fact that there really is no competition really only enhances that.

Thoughts?
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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Film Friday: The Bad New Bears (1976)

One of my favorite films of the 1970’s is The Bad New Bears. The Bad New Bears more than any other film encapsulates the free spirit of what it was like to be a kid in the 1970’s. It’s also hilarious!

Plot

The Bad New Bears is the story of an odd-ball youth baseball team that rises up to challenge the perfect team. The story begins when a city councilman wins his lawsuit against the Southern California Little League challenging the exclusion of the least athletically skilled children. To settle the suit, the League allows the councilman to form another team, the Bears, for these less than gifted kids and they will get to play.

Naturally, the team is a mess. Their pitcher is near-sighted. Their catcher is the immobile fat kid. They have two Mexican kids who can’t speak English. Their shortstop is a small kid who is prone to violence against bigger kids. They even have a kid, Lupus, who is so withdrawn that it seems to be a mental condition; he's afraid to swing the bat. One player describes the team as “a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies and a booger-eating moron.” Even worse, the coach who has been chosen to lead this team of misfits is former minor-league ball player and current alcoholic Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau).
Buttermaker is a bitter old man who works as a pool cleaner and has no sense at all how to deal with children. He is politically incorrect and liberally insults the kids. He drives the entire team around in his beater convertible with the top down and without seatbelts. He drinks beer as he drives and, at one point, he even lets the kids drink his beer. He even gets a bail bonds company to sponsor the team.

The team’s first game is a disaster and they are forced to forfeit after a humiliating beating. After this, Buttermaker decides to add some talent to the roster. Specifically, he finds Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the eleven year old daughter of one of his former girlfriends, who is a pitching savant. She refuses at first because she wants to torture Buttermaker a bit, but eventually she agrees. He also adds Kelly, a motorcycle-riding, smoking troublemaker. Kelly can run rings around the rest of the team and Buttermaker wants him to do so. Unfortunately, this creates ill will and Buttermaker must learn to trust the kids to rise to the occasion rather than relying on Kelly. Naturally, the Bears begin to get better bit by bit and eventually they end up playing the evil Yankees and their even more evil coach (Vic Morrow) for the little league pennant.
What Makes This Movie So Great

This is a fantastic movie on many levels. First, Matthau puts in another excellent performance. He truly is an amazing actor at presenting unlikable characters and making them sympathetic. I would dare say that he is vastly underrated as an actor. The film is also very well written and delivers a great many surprising moments, something you really don’t expect from a sports film. Indeed, while this film is a formula sports film in many ways, it never feels like it because it diverges from the formula more than enough to feel like a genuine story.
It is heartwarming too, but without being saccharine as so many other heartwarming films are. These kids come to respect each other and with that comes a sense of camaraderie. They aren’t forced to present a fake love for each other as other similar films require. Indeed, they keep right on insulting each other right up through the end. And the comedic timing is excellent, especially as so many of the best lines are spoken by child actors. Modern kids films tend to be slicker than this one, but they never feel as real.

Further, this film is an amazing time capsule of a film. The 1970’s were a high-water mark for great times to grow up. By the 1980’s, kids became latchkey kids as divorce soared and yuppie parents had only single children and even then traded their time with them for that second BMW. This was also the beginning of the obsession with safety and childproofing childhood. The 1990’s were beset with the peak of hateful feminism and fringe religious nuttery. Little girls either became little boys or submissive sister-wives and boys were told to play with Barbie. At the same time, racial tensions and de facto segregation were stoked by things like the OJ trial. Anyone raised in the 2000’s grew up paranoid of terrorism. The 1970’s had none of that. We grew up eating sugared cereal, riding bikes without helmets, telling dirty and racist/sexist jokes with our minority friends, driving in convertibles without seatbelts and rocking out to a musical and cinematic golden age. This film captures that spirit like a time capsule. In fact, I can’t think of a film that better presents an era than this one.
Indeed, look at how little of what happens in this film would be acceptable today. An entire baseball team rides around in Buttermaker’s broken down convertible without seatbelts. Today, that would be a crime, but our pee wee football did that and no one complained. Buttermaker lets the kids drink beer. That happened to. No helmets on bikes? We didn't even own helmets! A twelve year old with cigarettes? The victory parties are held at Pizza Hut? They tell racial jokes and say cutting, nasty things to each other? Yeah... we did all of that, and not only did we live to talk about it, but we got along and we had a great time.

Notice what’s missing too. There are no “hockey dads” who are ready to shoot each other dead over playing time. The kids throw punches without the cops being called. Nobody’s taking growth hormones or steroids. No one is whining about safety or peanut allergies or the fairness of keeping score. The “villain” is an opposing coach who is pushing his own son too hard... not a sniveling businessman trying to destroy the environment by sabotaging the Bears somehow. This film presents a time when people enjoyed life without worrying about the most hypersensitive prick and/or prickette in the room.
Even more importantly, there is on more thing missing: cynicism. Let me repeat that... there is a total lack of cynicism. This film revels in the joys these kids get when they realize that they can succeed if they try hard enough as a team. That makes this such a fun and happy film. Kids sports films today exist largely to send messages. Those messages are cynical stories declaring that girls are just as good as boys athletically or even more cynical stories about blacks and whites coming together in total harmony if the white racists just learn to do a little hip hop (Remember the Titans... cough cough). They are stories that push trendy theories about how children must act in a supposedly perfect world and which warn everyone to be terrified of causing offense. Bears wasn’t selling any of that crap. What Bears told us was that these losers didn’t have to be losers if they could learn to trust and respect each other. It didn’t ask any more of them. They didn’t have to solve the world’s problems or save the environment or find a way for people of all colors, genders and religions (except Islam) to coexist. They just had to learn to work together to play baseball, that’s it. And because of that, this feels like a fun and happy and genuine story rather than a political message acted out in a motion picture.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing this film has going for it is that it’s just a fun film. So many films today, especially formula films like Bears, just aren’t very fun. In fact, check the remake which is full of cruelty and spite, but entirely devoid of fun.
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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Hiatus

Due to summer classes causing a change in my daily schedule and tests on nearly every Monday in June, a blu-ray being sent to the wrong location, and being locked out of my apartment for 3 hours (but mostly the first one) the Summer of Marvel is being put on a temporary hiatus. It will be resuming June 29.

In the meantime, click below for some youtube mashups/music videos set to the movies.

Iron Man: "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath
LINK

AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" music video for Iron Man 2:
LINK.

Thor: AC/DC's "Thunderstruck"
LINK

A rather funny parody of the Captain America trailer featuring two songs from Team America; "Buck o' Five" and "America, F*ck Yeah!". Very much Not Safe For Work, obviously.: LINK

The opening to the 70s Hulk show set to clips from 2008's The Incredible Hulk":
LINK

2012's Avengers set to the opening of the cartoon, Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes:
LINK

And an updated one for Age of Ultron LINK

Have fun.
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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Film Friday: The French Connection (1971)

Today we come to The French Connection. The French Connection is a fascinating film that has been recognized by many as one of the best films of the 1970's. Its hero, Popeye Doyle is also routinely voted as one of the top movie heroes, though I find that somewhat questionable. Interestingly, Doyle will become the model for all future cops. Let’s discuss.

Plot

The French Connection begins in France, where rich French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is visiting the docks. Charnier runs the largest heroin smuggling ring in the world. He’s working on a plan to bring millions of dollars in heroin to the United States hidden inside the car of his friend Henri Devereaux, a French television personality. The idea is to hide the heroin inside the car's frame or lining. After the car gets shipped to the US, the car can be taken apart and the heroin removed. The heroin can then be passed along to various distributors.
Meanwhile, in New York City, we meet two cops: Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider). Doyle and Russo are on the narcotics squad and they go around the city busting pushers and users. In one early scene, we see them chase down a suspect with Doyle dressed as Santa. In another, Doyle and Russo shake down a bar full of black patrons, each of whom seems to be carrying drugs. Finally, we are shown that Doyle is very unpopular with the other detectives because he is blamed for the death of another cop. He and his superiors do not like each other either.

The two stories begin to merge when we are told by an undercover cop during the bar shakedown that all the drugs have dried up on the street. There is almost nothing to be bought or sold at the moment and no one has any idea when more is coming. Doyle and Russo pass this on to their commander, and go to a bar for the night. As they sit at the bar, they see a table packed with mobsters and attractive. Doyle's instincts tell him that there is something "wrong" with that table. He decides to investigate.

By investigating the people at the table, Doyle learns of a connection between the mobsters and lawyer Joel Weinstock, who acts as a go-between between the mob and Charnier. Indeed, Weinstock’s chemists checks a sample of the heroin for purity and advises that what is being bought is worth $32 million on the street. Following Weinstock leads Doyle to Charnier, who is trying to sell his heroin to the mob, who will distribute it.
What follows is a rather clever, interesting and at times tense battle between Doyle and Charnier, wherein Doyle tries to catch Charnier with the drugs, while Charnier tries to kill Doyle and then escape him.

What Made This Film A Classic

There is so much for which to commend this film. Doyle is a fascinating character. Charnier is a fascinating villain. This was one of the first films to look at the drug trade in a serious way and that made it rather interesting. The scheme used by Charnier is clever and makes for a good mystery toward the end of the film. The film is gritty rather than glossy, which gives it a fascinating ambiance. That ambiance is enhanced both by the setting being a decaying New York (indeed, the police station almost looks like something out of Mad Max) and the comparison between the cold, hard life of Doyle and Russo and the luxury in which Charnier surrounds himself. All of that makes for a great viewing experience.
What really made this movie standout, however, was Doyle. Doyle is an interesting character. On the one hand, he's a total jerk. He's abusive in a way that would not be tolerated today even by the worst police departments. We see this in particular in the bar shakedown scene where he threatens with violence and false allegations, where he leaves the appearance of having beaten a patron (who is actually an undercover cop – as an aside, we have already seen Doyle beat another suspect he arrests), and where he appears to steal either drugs or money from the people he shakes down. That makes him an abusive, corrupt cop and a truly unlikely hero.

It's possible too that he's racist, but it's more likely he hates everyone equally. He's a bad cop too in that he plays vague hunches and becomes obsessed with them to the point of needing to be ordered to abandon the hunch, he ignores orders and doesn't care at all about procedures, and he focuses on crimes the department isn't focusing on. None of his arrests would withstand legal scrutiny today, and it's even less likely they would have withstood the more liberal justice system of the 1970's. It is also suggested that these misbehaviors led to other officer(s) being hurt or killed, which seems to be why the other cops don't like him.
So why does the audience connect with this train wreck of a cop? Why has he become one of the favorite film heroes of all time? I suspect there's only one reason and it is the reason that makes this film work: Doyle is right. His instincts have led him straight to the biggest heroin deal in history and he's latched onto it like a pit bull to a BBQ-sauce-covered child. There is something about the guy everyone claims is wrong, but who is really right and who fights to prove that which attracts us as viewers. It comes from our love of the underdog, from our love of getting things right, and I think it comes from the fact that so many of us think we are right even as society tells us repeatedly that we are wrong. We want to believe that we know something THEY don't and Doyle represents us in that. He acts the way we wish we could, by flipping his middle finger at everyone else and doing what needs to be done.
Now, there are a lot of reasons why this type of behavior, especially in a police officer, should offend and bother us all, but it doesn't seem to stop us. I think the key in creating this kind of thinking is that Doyle is right. If he had been wrong, I doubt he would be viewed as a hero by anyone. What’s more, I get the sense that society loves to philosophize about abusive cops, but is in reality happy to allow abuse so long as “the right people” are getting the abuse... which speaks volumes about humanity.

Interestingly, Doyle became the template for so many future movie cops. In fact, he became the only acceptable template for cops in modern films: the rebel who plays by his own set of rules and stares down his screaming captain to get the job done! You will see this character over and over in films like the Lethal Weapon franchise, and Doyle was the first. Guys like Steve McQueen in Bullitt played something similar, but never took it to the point of being openly hostile to his superiors. Hackman takes it to that extreme. His Doyle is a wrecking ball and he doesn't care.
At the same time, by the way, it must be noted that Doyle's character wouldn't be that interesting if Charnier wasn't an exceptional villain. Rich, powerful, ultra-smart and with ice water running through his veins, Charnier comes across as a worthy challenge for Doyle. Charnier isn't some cardboard character who will act stupidly at the wrong times to let Doyle win, nor will he devolve into insanity nor will he shoot his henchmen. He is the scariest of villains: extremely competent.

Thoughts?
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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Film Friday: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of my favorite films of the 1970's. An early heist film, Pelham stars one of my favorite actors and it possesses the very types of characters, plotting, smart writing and pacing that made the 1970's perhaps the best decade for films. If you haven't seen this one, you should.

Plot

Pelham begins with a group of men boarding a subway train. These men are a strange mix of middle-aged men and old men. The leader of the group is British mercenary Bernard Ryder aka “Mr. Blue,” played by the vast underrated Robert Shaw. Shaw is an amazing actor with incredible range who deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of the greatest actors of all time. He leads a group that includes a man who comes across as a bloodthirsty thug (Hector Elizondo as Giuseppe Benvenuto aka “Mr. Grey”), an old guy who talks too much (Martin Balsam as Harold Longman aka “Mr. Green”) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman). Balsam is a former motorman who worked for the New York City Transit Authority driving subway trains until he was busted for drugs.
The target of their scheme is a subway train identified as Pelham 1-2-3 because of its destination and scheduled time of arrival. Interestingly, they actually hijack the train from the platform itself. From there, they take it and the passengers out into the tunnel and stop the train. They decouple most of the cars and move off to another part of the tunnel with the part of the train they are keeping. Then they call the tower to make their demands.

Meanwhile, Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) is going through his day. Today features a tour of the Transit Authority command center for visiting Japanese dignitaries, who run the Tokyo subway. They apparently don't speak English, so Matthau's tour is rather a waste. As Matthau finishes the tour, he hears the hijackers' call coming over the radio. He takes command of the situation and also bring in the transit police. This begins a cat and mouse game between Matthau and Shaw as Shaw tries to force Matthau to give him the money he demands and Matthau tries to solve how Shaw plans to escape from a closed tunnel.
What Makes This Film Work

Pelham is a great film that has stood the test of time. It has been referenced in popular culture, it still gets played regularly on multiple channels, and there was even a sequel made -- the remake wasn't bad, but is forgettable. So what made this film so good? The characters.

Before we address the characters, let me point out a few things. First, this film is really well written. The story itself is very clever. For one thing, consider the scheme itself. Who would ever think to hijack a subway train? Not only do subway trains generally have nothing of value on them, but talk about a trap! Unlike hijacking a plane or taking something from a fixed location and then trying to get away on foot or by car or whatever, a subway train is stuck on a track. It can only go to a handful of places and the tower will know exactly where it is headed at all times. What's more, even after you leave the car, you still need to leave the subway itself, which is easily flooded with cops. So taking a subway is already a fascinatingly unique and clever idea.
Moreover, the film parlays this into a fascinating mystery: how do they plan to escape? In that regard, Matthau is key. He is presented as an expert in everything subway, and he presents us with the mystery, talks us through it, explains what we need to know, and eventually solves it for us. This gives us a bond with a very likable character and it gives a mystery which keeps us focused intensely as we try to guess their plan.

Secondly, the film gives you a really good insight into the world of running a subway. Films that do that are always appreciated because it helps the audience feel like they are being immersed in a new, yet very real world. It's the same instinct that draws us to documentaries, and here it acts as a bonus in the film.
The film also is very cleverly written. In particular, the film is excels at presenting action through words. For example, at one point Shaw tells the passengers that he is holding a machine gun which shoots 800 rounds a minute: "And that means that if every one of you rushed me all at once, not one of you would get any further than you are right now." Think about this line for a moment. Most movies would have had him shoot off a couple rounds. But not only is that clichéd, but it doesn't really paint an image: shooting into the air reminds us that this is a gun, but that’s it. Shaw's line makes us think of each of the passengers being mowed down under a spray of lead. That image make Shaw much more terrifying than if he just shot into the air. And the way he delivers it reminds us how cool Shaw is under pressure. He is no ordinary criminal.

The whole film is full of lines like this.

Now let's talk about the characters. Few heist films give you much in the way of characters. What they really do instead is sell you the actors. Yes, there might be some back-story presented to fill in the characters (and the target will be presented as sufficiently odious that the audience comes to believe that stealing from them is the good moral choice), but what they really sell you is the chemistry between the actors.
Pelham is different. Here, the guys running the heist are the bad guys. They make no bones about it. And there is no chemistry between them – they are an unpleasant lot. You have Shaw, who is presented as a mercenary who worked in Africa. He thinks he lives by a moral code, but he doesn’t. He mistakes his cold-blooded nature for nobility. You have Elizondo who is presented as a psychotic. And you have Balsam who is presented as a greedy old motorman who can’t keep his mouth shut and who thinks he has the right to steal from the city because the framed him for drugs. He is not meant to be a criminal, but he is hopelessly bitter. You never do learn how these men got together or who planned this, but you learn loads about them as the story runs. Even better, you don't learn it in flashbacks or even with direct discussions, you learn it in off-the-cuff comments and the ways their characters react. The end result is a fascinatingly real group who are held together by the sheer will of Shaw and are as dangerous to each other as they are to the hostages they take.
On the other side, you have Matthau. Matthau was huge in the 1970's and the reason is that despite his Droopy Dog personality, Matthau was an everyman who acted like the world had worn him down, but who was ready to be the hero at a moment's notice. He still cared about right and wrong, even though he talked like he didn’t, and he was extremely competent at his job when he needed to be. Those are thing we respect and want in our protagonists. Moreover, Matthau brought excellent comedic timing to the role, and his personality is disarming. Indeed, he is one of those rare types who could talk back to the deadly serious Shaw and the audience knew Shaw would respect his wisecracks.
What's more, every character in this story brings something to the table. All the bit characters who normally exist only to further the plot come with complete personalities here. You have the Jewish passenger who is likely a concentration camp survivor, the trainee conductor on his first day, the sexist who reluctantly let women into his department, the grumpy old dispatcher who struggles to suppress his anger at the death of his friend, the mayor who has given up his chance at re-election, the slimy political consultant, the cop who found a job that lets him read his newspaper in peace and now must face a truly unexpected scenario, and so on. Unlike modern movies, this isn't a movie of main characters surrounded by props, this is a film populated by real people. And that makes the film feel so much richer and it raises the stakes for the battle of minds between Matthau and Shaw.

All of this makes this one of those films that is truly rare today. It is an intensely clever film about a battle of minds and wills between two top men in a very real world. There is no cartoon action, no cartoon villain, and nothing gets dumbed-down.
On a final note, as is so often the case, the setting itself plays an interesting role here. I've already noted how this film educates you about the inner workings of a subway, but at the same time it gives you a glimpse of New York City in the 1970’s. This was the decade of the Apple in Decay when New York was going broke and everything was running down. This film presents that sensibility very well, but simultaneously makes it clear that as bad as things seemed, there are still good people who stand ready to do the right thing. It makes for a fascinating contrast... something modern films rarely understand.
Thoughts?
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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Summer of 70's

With June almost upon us, it's time to announce our plan for the summer. While Kit continues his Marvel series (I will chime in too), I have decided to focus Fridays on some of the best films of the 1970's. This is the Summer of 70's and these are films you should all see... assuming you haven't. This will include films like The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and The Bad News Bears. We'll hit upon science fiction, drama, comedy and paranoia. It will be fun. So put on your bell bottoms and grove along for the ride!
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Monday, May 18, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Iron Man

By Kit

"I am Iron Man".

Now that we got the most recent Marvel mega-hit out of the way it is time to go back to the beginning. Back to where the whole thing began. Back to 2008, when Marvel Studios released the first live-action movie that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe and launched one of the biggest money-making franchises in movie history, Jon Favreau's 2008 movie Iron Man


So, let's dive in!

The Plot

The movie begins with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in Afghanistan riding in a Humvee with a group of soldiers, making small talk, when BOOM! —they are ambushed, he is hit by a shell made by Stark Industries, and wakes back up now a hostage of terrorists.

We promptly flash back 36 hours to an event held honoring Tony Stark. Now, this flashback does a great job introducing the main set. By the time we get back to Afghanistan we have gotten a good sense of who all the main characters are. In the space of about 5 minutes we have Tony Stark standing up said event to go gambling at a casino, fending off questions from a sexy blonde reporter with delicious snark, taking said sexy blonde reporter back to his (very nice) California house for sex, and spending the morning after (away from her) in his basement working on his next invention.

In this time span we also meet Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his assistant who brings the blonde reporter (now covered in just a bed sheet) her clothes. The reporter makes a snarky comment about her still "Mrs. Potts replies that she "does anything and everything Mr. Stark requires, including, occasionally, taking out the trash." Cut to Stark in basement.

A subsequent conversation between Pepper and Tony in the basement pretty much confirms this, along with telling us that Stark is very dependent upon Pepper in order to function as the head of a major company; when he realizes he forgot her birthday he tells her to buy something for herself. She replies that she already has, and it is very nice.

Then a plane trip with Rhodey gives us their relationship. Rhodey is playing the cool-headed friend, refusing a drink from a waitress, saying he can’t drink tonight. We then cut to the waitresses dancing around a stripper pole, Rhodey, now drinking, leaning on Tony and complaining about his boss.

It is scenes like these that keep bringing people back to the the Marvel movie series. While DC persists in being as angst-ridden as possible, the Marvel movie fill their movies with little, fun moments between the cast. Instead of the depressing, dreary stuff that fills the DC universe in the Marvel universe we have moments like these; moments that make us want to spend even more time with the characters.

Anyway, back to the story. He goes to Afghanistan, shows off his new weapon, the Jericho, the a group of officers and generals, rides the convoy, gets captured the terrorist group Ten Rings. He is saved by a man named Yinsen, a doctor held hostage by the terrorists, who has put a device in his chest that keeps the shrapnel from moving into his heart.

They are told by the leader of Ten Rings to build the Jericho missile for them. Instead, Tony and Yinsen build an Iron Man suit, which Tony uses to break free and escape (SPOILER: Yinsen dies), while killing a bunch of terrorists in what is still one of the MCU’s best fight scenes.

He returns and decides to hold a press conference (after getting an American cheeseburger) announcing that Stark Industries is getting out of the weapons business. Pepper, meanwhile, is greeted by a strange but funny man named Agent Coulson who tells her, and later Stark himself, that Mr. Stark needs to be “debriefed” about his escape by the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.” (Spell out the capital letters) Moving on.

Stark, who everyone now thinks is suffering from PTSD, starts working on upgrading the suit from the bulky iron husk to a more sleek, ergonomic design. He even adds red. And, after learning about Stark tech being sold to the Ten Rings, he goes off to a town they have been massacring civilians in to dish out some justice. Awesomely.

So, now, Tony must stop the guns being shipped and save his position at the company.

So, now, Tony must stop the guns being shipped and save his position at the company.

Why It's Awesome

From the moment we saw the trailer where Tony Stark blew apart terrorists to the tune of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” we knew this would be awesome and it is.

There are three big reasons:
1.) Downey
2.) Favreau
3.) Paltrow

Downey is an absolute joy to watch. He owns every scene he is in. Before this movie he was a washed-up actor, after this movie he is one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men. He’s funny, witty, and charismatic. He is the slightly-narcissistic, self-absorbed playboy with a heart of gold we all know and love and we root for him.

The chemistry between Downey and Paltrow is great. It ain’t Bogey and Bacall but it’s good and its fun. They are probably the MCU’s best couple, maybe second best (I’ll mention their competitors later). Pepper knows that Stark needs her and Stark knows and she knows that Stark knows it. But, deep down, she cares for him. This almost husband-and-wife relationship comes across in nearly every scene they have, making their scenes a highlight of the movie. They're a great couple.

Favreau’s direction is great. Giving the movie a fun, irreverent attitude that would come to define the over-all series; no matter how dark things get for the heroes, they’ll still give you a laugh. He provided the basis by which all future Marvel movies would be judged. At least until 2012's The Avengers.

The only big flaw is the villain, who, SPOILER, is Obadiah Stane. And he's the typical greedy, corporate villain playing both sides. Been there, done that, seen it. Weak villains with vague motivations are a problem for Marvel movies and, unfortunately, this is no exception. There are also some plot holes (how did he just stroll into that Ten Rings camp?) but they are nit-picks.

So, despite a few flaws (Obadiah's movie provided a fun, thrilling launch for the MCU. I recommend it.

Next Week on Summer of Marvel: The Incredible Hulk.

Blonde: "Hey, Tony. Remember me?"
Tony: "Sure don't."
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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Film Friday: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Let’s talk about John Carpenter’s second film: 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13. This is one of those films that film-buffs love, and deservedly so. Indeed, this film is fascinating in so many ways. What interests me, however, is just how deeply conservative this film is, especially given the fact that Carpenter is rather liberal.

Plot

Heavily influenced by Howard Hawks’s westerns, particularly Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13 involves exactly what the title suggests. As the story opens, newly promoted Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is ordered to oversee the Anderson Police Precinct in the Anderson ghetto of Los Angeles for the night. The station has been moved and only a handful of staff remain at the Anderson Station to shut it down.
As background, we are told that a ruthless gang, who call themselves Street Thunder, has stolen automatic weapons and is now in a war with the police. After seeing a group of gang members gunned down, we see the multiracial leaders of the gang swear a blood oath and then drive around looking for people to kill.

Meanwhile, we see two other subplots unfold. First, a group of prisoners, including multiple-murderer Napoleon Wilson, are being transported from one prison to another so he can wait on death row. One of the three prisoners becomes sick and their bus stops at the Anderson Station.
The second subplot involves a man who takes his daughter into the Anderson ghetto with the intent of asking their housekeeper to move in with them. I suspect Carpenter makes a gay reference here but I have no proof (the man and his daughter plan to tell the housekeeper that they have a spare room now that his male roommate is dead). As the man stops to call for directions, his daughter sees an ice cream truck. She goes to get ice cream, but the gang leaders stop and kill her and the ice cream peddler. The girl’s father races over, grabs the gun the ice cream peddler had in his truck, chases the gang bangers, and kills one of them. They then chase him until he runs into the Anderson Station.

A siege begins, with the gang cutting off the power and phones to the Anderson Station and periodically trying to rush the building. It is a hopeless fight the defenders must win, though they are short on ammunition and people.

Why This Film Works

This is such a fascinating film to me on many levels. For example, on a purely technical level, this film is awful. Much of the writing is stilted and ridiculous. The actors are often wooden. The action is poorly staged. The plot is far-fetched. And so on. Yet, this is a really good film.

What works here are the “buts” to each of the complaints I just listed. The visual style is muddy and pedestrian and the action is poorly staged, but it makes the film feel honest in a way that smoother choreography and artistic shots of doves flying through windows as the heroes draw their guns in slow motion simply cannot provide. The actors are often wooden, but at other times they are brilliant. Co-leads Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston in particular provide some very subtle, excellently done moments that say so much more than the dialog conveys. A good example of this is how Joston, who goes through the whole film asking for cigarettes, conveys subtle shock when Stoker becomes the first cop to apologize for not being able to provide a cigarette. His shock at being treated with respect tells us reams about Stoker’s character as a genuinely good guy.
Continuing, the plot is definitely far-fetched, but it’s not implausible or so unlikely that you doubt it. What’s more, the plot is streamlined and provides just enough explanation to understand the film, but not enough to make the film feel convoluted. The writing is interesting too. Much of it is stilted and kind of silly:
Convict: “Aren’t you going to wish me good luck?”
Cops: “Good luck.”
Convict: “Two cops wishing me good luck? Now I know I’m doomed.”
But much of it is rather clever and much of it is funny. Joston in particular tells good stories throughout and he has some witty lines, such as when the woman who falls for him asks what to do with her final bullets:
Leigh: “I have two shots left. Should I save them for us?”
Joston: “Save ‘em for the first two assholes that come through that vent.”
Leigh: “What do I use on the rest of them?”
Joston: “Then you have to wing it.”
What really makes this film work, however, is the three male leads. Each of these guys Austin Stoker (Lt. Ethan Bishop), Darwin Joston (Napoleon Wilson) and Charles Cyphers (Special Officer Starker) are treated as leading men rather than supporting actors. Each has a strong back-story, gets solid screen time, and has lines which make them the focus of the story when they are in it. And each actor takes these opportunities and handles them perfectly. The result is that you end up with three strong stories that intertwine to form the main story rather than one story with some minor characters providing filler. This makes for a strong film because you are constantly interested in what is happening.

Conservative? Oh Yeah!

For those who haven’t followed Carpenter’s career, there is a definite liberal bent, particularly as it relates to the issue of feminism. This came in large part from his producer Debra Hill, but Carpenter ran with it voluntarily. He’s also done some anti-Reagan work, some pro-environmental work and he’s done some bizarre smears against religious conservatives. So one would assume that his film about a multiracial gang arising in the ghettos of Los Angeles would tread heavily into liberalism and liberation theology. Interestingly, however, it doesn’t. Instead, it presents full-on conservatism. Observe...
The story involves a mixed-race gang of “youths” who have gotten their hands on automatic weapons and are now considered a menace. This gang arose in the ghetto. The standard liberal treatment for this is that the gang was formed because of a combination of white oppression and economic hopelessness. None of that is the case here, however. Instead, the only clue we get as to why the gang formed is that several of their leaders dress in Marxist garb similar in appearance to what Che Guevara wore. That’s highly unusual because (1) it fails to imply that the gang was forced to turn to crime by evil rich whites, and (2) it implies that Marxists are indeed dangerous. With this being the 1970s and Liberation Theology and “root causes” policing being so prevalent, this is a significant jump to the right.

What’s more, compare the gang to what is going on inside the station. Bishop is black and he too came from Anderson. Liberation Theology says that such people must be on the side of the revolution, only Anderson is presented as firmly pro-law and order. He is even shown to believe in heroism, another thing the left was trying to eliminate. What’s more, the police side is a multiracial group who mix freely, never judge each other on the basis of race, and let a black man lead the group. These are all things leftists tell us cannot exist in the real world.
Moreover, as a direct blow to the root causes argument, we are told clearly but indirectly that the reason Bishop is such a sterling character despite growing up in a ghetto is because his father instilled in him strong values including respect for his mother. Again, liberals routinely claim that minorities cannot overcome their root causes. Carpenter says the opposite here. Bishop even notes that “no one got me out of Anderson, I walked out on my own.” Again, self-help is an illusion in liberal circles.

Further, the gang appears to be leftists. Yet, they are interestingly shown to be vicious and without any noble principles. They kill blacks, as well as whites. They kill a little girl for no reason at all. Their first killing is an ice cream truck driver, i.e. a working man. At the police station they kill cop and crook indiscriminately even though liberals would tell us that the crooks are only locked up because the police are an occupying army used by the privileged elite to keep order.

Finally, Napoleon Wilson becomes a hero in this film, but there is no suggestion that his crimes should be forgiven just because he proves to be a good guy. Nor does he ever disclaim his own actions or their significance. In fact, he doesn’t even bother to explain them even as people ask: the message to that is that intent doesn’t matter, only the act matters. That’s highly conservative.

It’s interesting to me that a leftist director could create a film that is perfectly set up to be very liberal, but ends up being strongly conservative in values.

Thoughts?
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Monday, May 11, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Age of Ultron

By Kit
"There are no strings on me."

Well, it is time for the Summer of Marvel and today we start with Marvel's most recent release, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. Now, I am still a bit too stuck in the post-theater viewing HOLY-COW-THAT-WAS-AWESOME-MOOD to give it a truly discerning and honest evaluation, but I will give it my best go. But, in short: It is well-worth the $10 to see it.

So, let's get this thing started!

SPOILERS!: Though I will avoid giving some big spoilers for the movie, there are some pretty big spoilers for Captain America: Winter Soldier, but if you read Andrew's review then you should be mostly fine, however there are some things he left out.

The Plot

The movie opens with all the Avengers attacking one of the last HYDRA outposts in Sokovia to retrieve Loki's scepter (don't ask). They succeed but run into two twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in the comics, who have the powers of super-speed and telekinesis/telepathy/give people weird visions/dreams, respectively. They don't do much here aside from Pietro knocking Hawkeye off his feet and Wanda giving Tony a vision of the rest of the Avengers dead, which causes him to make some rather stupid decisions throughout the rest of the movie.

The Avengers grab the scepter and bring it back and the Avengers decide to hold a party to celebrate a successful victory. In the meanwhile, Stark and Banner decide to use some of the tech they picked up at the HYDRA base to develop an AI called Ultron, which will be used to create a shield to protect the earth from another alien invasion. Oh, and they do this without telling the rest of the team.

So, the party goes well with the audience learning about the various. Thor and Stark, explain why Portman and Paltrow are not in the movie, discuss their girlfriends' achievements, Thor and Steve Rogers drink some Asgardian alcohol "not fit for mortal men" with Omaha Beach veterans, and we learn that Black Widow, or Natasha, and Bruce Banner are in a weird relationship. Natasha has developed a rapport with Banner and, as is depicted in the opening fight scene, is responsible for bringing Bruce out of Hulk mode, and are romantically attached to each other but Bruce, due to his habit of turning into a "giant green rage monster", is quite hesitant. More on this in the "My Thoughts".

The revelries die down and people disperse as the gang plays a (hilarious) contest of "Who can pull Thor's hammer" until things are rudely interrupted by an Ultron who has awoken, become sentient, whacked Tony's computer butler JARVIS, and now wants to do something evil that involves destroying the Avengers. He fights them, they destroy his current robot body but he has plenty of other ones and leaves the Avengers Tower and joins up with the Maximoff twins who hate Stark.

So the Avengers must hunt him down and stop him from remaking the world "better".

My Thoughts

Again, I still can't give a completely discerning view of this but let me give it a shot. I don't think it is quite as good as the original but that is more because the original was ground-breaking in the way it brought together a group of characters from different movie series and threw them together. But it still works, albeit with a few glitches.

The humor here does not work quite as well as it did in the first one. That's not to say there aren't moments when it doesn't work, it works 90% of the time but it falls flat a few times. The biggest example being when Tony and Thor are discussing their respective girlfriends, comparing their successes in their respective fields in a game of "My girlfriend is cooler than your girlfriend." Yeah, its boring.

But for the most part, the humor still works.

Some characters, especially Clint and Natasha are given a tad more development and backstory. Clint has a family and a farm and we learn a bit more about what Natasha went through when she was being made into the Black Widow, both from her dreams and her dialogue with Banner.

On the subject of Banner and Natasha, that is one part of the movie I am still not sure wether I think it is a stroke of genius or a truly terrible decision. Its not that the actors have terrible chemistry or that they make a poor match, the movie does a good job

But enough with the negatives. The movie is a lot of fun. The fight scenes are cool. Ultron is a great villain, played brilliantly by James Spader, and actually providing some of the best jokes in the movie. His only flaw was that I could never really figure out his goal was or why he wanted to do it. Something about "changing humanity" involving destroying it. But he is not alone in the MCU in having a poorly-explains end-game and he is far from the worst in that regard.

There is another new character, Vision who, well, I can't say a whole lot about him because he didn't get a whole lot of screen time. But, what I did see showed a great deal of potential. A character who is deeply compassionate, probably more so than the rest of the Avengers, yet willing to do what is necessary to preserve life.

Now, the true highlight of the movie is the twins, Pietro and Wanda, performed by Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. They have a ying-yang quality, with Pietro being the funny, wise-cracking jokester and Wanda the darker, more serious one. Their chemistry is very good and they are quite likable. Also, their switch to the Avengers (let's face it, you knew that was coming) is played well enough that it feels rather naturally.

Interestingly, these two characters allow me to pass a much harsher verdict on the director, producers, and writers of Godzilla and the movie, itself. Why? Because in that movie you had two main characters, a husband and wife, played by the same two actors, who were unbelievably wooden and boring. Now, having seen those two actors play fun and at least moderately engaging characters, at least if given the right script and direction I can safely say it was not the fault of the actors but the director, producers, and writers of Godzilla.

So, there it is. A fun movie that, while not as quite as good as the first, still brings what a good popcorn movie needs: Fun.

Next Week: Iron Man (2008).
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Friday, May 8, 2015

Film Friday: 2010 (1984)

With us touching upon the unique career of Roy Scheider, I thought it was appropriate to finally finish the Peter Hyams sci-fi trilogy: Capricorn One, Outland and now 2010. I view Outland as a masterpiece. Capricorn One is a good but not great and has been unfairly forgotten, especially against today’s dearth of worthwhile films. Then there is 2010. 2010 is simultaneously a strong, entertaining film and a complete and utter disappointment. Let’s discuss.

Plot

Here’s the background: 2010 is the supposed continuation of 2001. After killing his crew, the HAL 9000 brought the Discovery One into orbit around Jupiter. The US is planning to eventually go get it and find out why HAL went rogue.

As the story opens, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) is approached by a Russian agent. The man advises Floyd that the Discovery’s orbit is decaying faster than expected and that HAL will be destroyed in a crash with Jupiter’s moon Io before the Americans can get there. He also tells Floyd that the Soviets are preparing to launch a flight to get to HAL first. The problem is that the Soviets lack the ability to restart the Discovery and get information out of HAL. That is why the agent has approached Floyd, because the Russians want Floyd to go with them.
Of course the trip almost doesn’t happen because tensions between the Soviets and the Americans are so high that war seems inevitable and no one wants to help the Soviets get to HAL. Ultimately, however, an agreement is reached and Floyd and two other Americans ride along on the Soviet ship, the Leonov.

As they approach Jupiter, Floyd is awoken early by the Russian crew. Telemetry from Jupiter’s moon Europa shows something incredible: the possibility of life. Unfortunately, tensions are running even higher at home and the Russians have been ordered not to cooperate with Floyd. They try to land a probe on Europa, but it gets destroyed.
Soon enough, the Leonov comes to the Discovery. The Americans board the Discovery and restart HAL. At that point, they start getting messages from Dave Bowman, the former pilot of the Discovery who vanished at the end of 2001, that they need to leave the area within a certain number of days. To do this, they will need to sacrifice the Discovery, using it as a booster rocket to get the Leonov into the right position to return to Earth. But can they trust HAL to sacrifice himself?

In the end, they get a message from God basically telling them, “Stay off my lawn.”

Entertaining Movie, but Major Disappointment

As a movie goes, 2010 is quite entertaining. You’ve got a good plotline, with the need to get to the Discovery before its orbit decays. They set up good tension between the two crews and do a good job of overcoming that tension. They add excellent additional tension with the question of whether or not they can trust HAL. The effects are well done and the space scenes are smart and heart stopping. They feel more honest to me than Gravity. The solution to the film is clever and the bit about God at the end makes for a nice ribbon on the film.
I do question why the Russians would agree to this on the terms they do, which let the Americans claim the Discovery and keep the Russians out at their whim, but it doesn’t really detract from the film. All in all, this is a good science fiction adventure and, while it’s certainly not Top 10 material, it is much better than most of what the studios turn out today.

Where the film goes wrong is as a sequel to 2001. It’s interesting. If this hadn’t been a sequel to 2001, I suspect the film would have been ignored. Without the mystery of HAL sitting at the center of this film, it just doesn’t feel like enough to draw people in. Yet, the film craps all over the legacy of 2001.
2001 had a futuristic aesthetic. It took place at a time when humanity seemed more robotic and sterile. Fashions were futuristic. Their technology, while feeling dated to us today, felt futuristic and advanced when the film was made. Their technology was obviously superior to ours. The Earth was different too and there was little sense of dueling superpowers. To the contrary, the film seemed to suggest that humanity had moved beyond our conflicted world today and was ready for the next step in their evolution. 2010 was none of these things. 2010 takes place in a world that is virtually identical to the 1980’s in every way. From a technological, aesthetic and human evolution perspective, 2010 is an entirely different world than 2001, it is a world that feels a hundred years less advanced.

What’s more, the feel of the two movies is entirely different. 2001 was a contemplative, science fiction film that took its time to raise questions about the nature of humanity and where we were going as a species. It also suggested some higher guidance, but stopped well short of declaring a deity. To the contrary, it left you guessing as to who or what the obelisks were and who placed them where they were and what they really meant.

2010 is just a low-key action film. It mentions a couple of philosophical questions, but it never even bothers asking the questions those mentions imply, nor does it spend time developing those issues. It is the difference between being asked to contemplate the nature of silence and being told, “Gee, it’s quiet around here.” At no point does 2010 address human evolution, the nature of life, or really the afterlife. All it does in that regard is have God send a warning through a dead guy and then send a text message to Earth... “Stay off Europa beeeatches.”
To me, this is the real failure. I enjoy 2010 as an action adventure, but I wanted more. Being a sequel to one of the most contemplative films ever, you kind of expected either that the film would provide some answers or would ask a new set of questions. This one doesn’t. And the one answer it does provide, why HAL went all Hannibal Lecter on the crew just isn’t satisfying or even up to the level of what it was implied in 2001.

In 2001, we are given clues to HAL’s behavior, but no real answers. We see that HAL is arrogant, despite seeming emotionless. He notes that he cannot make mistakes... only humans make mistakes. He is cold-blooded and doesn’t think twice about murdering the crew. He doesn’t even give them a chance by killing half of them in their sleep. He seems to be a liar or lacks self-awareness or is perhaps insane at the end when he’s trying to tell Bowman that he’s “all right now.” He seems to cling to life, even though it shouldn’t matter to him one way or the other.
What does this all mean? I think it suggests that HAL has attained a level of sophistication in his programming where he has developed human flaws. Why? Well, that’s the interesting question. That is what 2010 needed to answer. But all 2010 offers by way of explanation is that HAL was given conflicting orders with the suggestion being that evil scientists programmed him to somethingsomething Ronald Reagan is evil mumblemumble somethingsomething. So when his orders to protect the crew and to complete the mission came into conflict, because he saw the crew as standing in the way of that (why he thought this is another key unexplained point), HAL resolved the conflict by murdering the crew. HAL is, in fact, the victim! Root causes root causes!!
Up yours. This is utter crap. First, the two key points to this explanation aren’t even explained. They are just glossed over: the evil military scientists did SOMETHING and HAL freaked because of SOMETHING! Secondly, and even worse, this explanation completely undoes the setup. This explanation turns all of HAL’s surprising and fascinating behavior into “the military programmed him to do that.” There is no longer any question about HAL evolving or what his conduct says about us... he vas just followik orders! That flies in the face of everything about 2001.

This film should have swung for the fences, but it never even thought about trying. That’s the shame here.

Thoughts?
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